Mothering in academia

I read a review for Mama, PhD, a new book about having children in academia that I am looking forward to reading (You can read an excerpt). That prompted me to finally write about my birth experience and to now write about being a working mother.

First of all, I find all these books and articles on being a working mother overwhelmingly negative. Millions of women are working mothers. It’s hard. We manage. Things could be better. It’s not Doomsday. But if I wrote a book about it, I’d probably focus on the negatives as well. Things are not going to get better unless we talk about it.

Here is my brief take on motherhood and academia:

  • Being an academic makes having a family easier (compared to working in industry) since our schedules are so flexible. Flexibility and being able to work from home occasionally make it all manageable.
  • Things are changing rapidly. I am shocked to hear some of the horror stories about women having to teach a week after giving birth and not being offered leave. That isn’t my experience at all. I applied for a Sloan Foundation grant to take a semester off from teaching, and other young academic mothers I know have received incredible amounts of support. Yeah, there are things that could improve, but I get the sense that maternity leaves are way better now than they were ten years ago (no, I never really left work behind, but that’s another matter). Things seem to be much better in academia than industry.
  • Things are changing rapidly for dads, too. Dads help out with child care and house work more than ever. They do like three times as much child care as dads a generation ago. Dads deserve support, encouragement, and praise.
  • Mothers spend more time with their kids than they did a generation ago! (We’re too hard on ourselves).

Here are my two big gripes about motherhood and academia:

  • Day care. I worry more about day care than tenure. There are too few options for working moms, and it’s hard to figure out child care when going to conferences. Very hard. Few universities have child care available, and universities that have evening classes ought to have options, since day cares close by 6pm. My baby can’t crawl herself home and babysit herself while I am teaching.
  • Nursing. If the thought of nursing makes you uncomfortable, stop reading now. Nursing at home is easy, nursing at work is more challenging. It’s really hard to focus at a conference when I am struggling to discreetly take pumping breaks, pumping in a bathroom because someone turned my cozy private pumping room into a very public coat room, and constantly worrying about how I’m going to keep my milk cold before I get home when the hotel didn’t provide the fridge I requested and the ice machine is broken. None of this is unique to academia, but we do have to do a lot of conference travel. It’s all worth it, especially when babies stay so healthy (there are about 100 more benefits). I refuse to feel awkward about it, because hey, babies have to eat.

Mary Ann Mason (a dean at Berkeley) is an expert on women and men academics having children pretenure. The data shows that women who have children young don’t get tenure and that men who have children pre-tenure are rewarded with tenure. In a talk I attended, Dr. Mason suggested that academic mothers tend to leave pipeline rather than get denied tenure, which is good news for those who stick with academia. Her data also showed that academic mothers average more than 13 hours of work per day (counting child care), which sounds about right. Don’t get me wrong, motherhood is infinitely rewarding, but it is also a lot more work than I imagined. She wrote a book about this that I haven’t read yet, but if it’s anything like her talk, it will be great. You can also read her articles Do Babies Matter? and Do Babies Matter II?.

2 responses to “Mothering in academia

  • Marcelo


    Congratulations for your child!

    Wow! I have never known how it is the trends and games of a PhD mother. It seems a little difficult. 🙂

    Best Wishes!


  • caroline

    I agree that nothing’s going to change unless we talk about it, which is why Elrena and I assembled this book. But I do want to say that these essays — while frank about the complications of combining academic work and family life — aren’t overwhelmingly negative, either. I hope they offer support and inspiration for women in academia and out as they figure out how to combine work and parenting.

    Laura McLay: Actually, I am really looking forward to reading the book and I hope people check it out. My post sounds a little negative, but I was reacting to the negativity in the review. I didn’t want the review to discourage people from finding out more about being PhD mother. The excerpt from the book seems upbeat and even-handed.

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